On Jan. 2019, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris declared her candidacy for President of the United States of America to great fanfare.
She earned quick praise and frequent comparison to former President Barack Obama. A recent Democratic Party straw poll by the Daily Kos ranked her in the top tier of Presidential candidates, with 27 percent of respondents voicing their support for her candidacy. So far, she has pitched herself to the American people as a strong progressive with a particular passion for criminal justice reform.
Harris has a reasonable chance at winning the Democratic Party nomination. She’s charismatic, smart and very likely to bridge the growing divide within the party between the progressive left and the centrists. If she wins the nomination, she might even defeat Donald Trump in the general election. I understand why some voters in the party have decided to rally around her: She’s a promising alternative for Democrats who want someone progressive like Bernie Sanders but better than he is at speaking to identity politics.
However, I would like to encourage my fellow Democrats to approach Senator Harris with a healthy dose of skepticism. As a prosecutor and California State Attorney General, Harris has engaged in blatantly unethical behavior for her profession and embraced positions that actively hurt her constituents. While this does not necessarily have to be a red line for everyone—and it certainly will not prevent me from voting for her should she win the Democratic nomination—our party should hold Harris’ feet to the fire here. Even more concerning than her past positions is that she refuses to own up to them, portraying herself as a long-time, progressive criminal justice reform activist.
I want to clarify that I have no inherent issues with a prosecutor being elected to the presidency. We need prosecutors; we need people who serve the public good rather than represent the interests of paying clients. However, if your job requires you to make decisions that could potentially ruin people’s lives, the ethical standards should be higher, not lower. If you, like Kamala Harris, decide you want to run for President of the United States, it becomes imperative that the public thoroughly and mercilessly scrutinizes every facet of your political career.
In 2015, law enforcement caught Robert Murray, a prosecutor in Kern County, committing one of the most egregious offenses a prosecutor could perpetrate. Specifically, he falsified a confession transcript that connected the defendant with a far worse crime than that with what he had actually been charged. When the defense demanded a copy of the original tape recording, Murray admitted to his crime but said that it was merely a harmless joke. The judge disagreed. He stated that the court refuses to tolerate such outrageous conduct and dismissed the indictment on the grounds of prosecutorial misconduct (Observer, “California Prosecutor Falsified Transcript of Confession,” 03.04.2015).
How does this incident involve Senator Harris? At the time, she was the Attorney General of California. In that capacity, she appealed the indictment. According to Sidney Powell of The Observer, this was the third time she had appealed a prosecutorial misconduct dismissal in less than three months. As of March 2015, Murray was still allowed to work as a prosecutor (Observer, “California Prosecutor Falsified Transcript of Confession,” 03.04.2015).
As Attorney General, Harris has a history of fighting to keep men she knew were innocent in prison and of hiding cases of significant illegal activity conducted by law enforcement. In 1999, Daniel Larsen was sentenced to 27 years to life in prison for possession of a concealed weapon. There had been nine witnesses who could testify that Larsen was not guilty, but the court called none of them at the trial because of his incompetent and now disbarred attorney. With the help of the Innocence Project, he was able to prove his innocence, and the court overturned his conviction in 2009.
How does this involve Senator Harris? She challenged his release not because she believed he was guilty—she did not dispute his innocence—but because he hadn’t presented proof of his innocence quickly enough. And so, she fought to keep a man she definitely knew was innocent behind bars for life (NBCLosAngeles, “After 13 Years in Prison, Man Found Innocent of Crime Freed,” 3.20.2013).
In another incident, law enforcement discovered that Deborah Madden had purposely sabotaged the drug results of multiple cases as a technician at a San Francisco crime lab. But even though the highest levels of the district attorney’s office knew about Madden’s unreliability as a drug expert, Kamala Harris and her office hid this information from defense attorneys. Superior Court Judge Anne-Christine Massullo ultimately ruled that Harris’ office had violated defendants’ rights through this act of prosecutorial misconduct, calling into question the convictions of nearly 40 defendants (SFGate, “Judge rips Harris’ office for hiding problems,” 05.21.2010).
However, perhaps Harris’ most egregious example of immoral conduct happened in 2014. A federal judge ordered that all non-violent second-strike offenders be eligible for parole in California in an action against constitutional prison crowding. Kamala Harris, then the Attorney General of California, disagreed with the decision. She argued in court that by releasing these inmates early, prisons would lose “an important labor pool” (Los Angeles Times, “Federal judges order California to expand prison releases,” 11.14.2014). Despite pitching herself as a lifelong champion for criminal justice reform, Harris had advocated that the need to keep nonviolent offenders as slaves outweighs their constitutional rights. How would the Democratic Party call itself progressive if members threw their support behind someone with such an atrocious record on civil rights issues?
Even worse, Harris has yet to apologize for her actions and in fact has refused to even acknowledge them (Reason.com, “Kamala Harris Hopes You’ll Forget Her Record as a Drug Warrior and Draconian Prosecutor,” 01.31.2019). At a town hall, she responded to a question calling her out on her past actions by answering “I’ve been consistent my whole career,” and then explained how the record supports her claim that she has been progressive on prison reform (CNN Twitter, “I’ve been consistent my whole career,” 01.28.2019).
I won’t delve into her argument because, in my view, it’s irrelevant. When you actively cover up police misconduct, try to keep a man who you know is innocent in prison and refuse to release nonviolent offenders because you need their involuntary labor, you don’t get to reframe your narrative.
Kamala Harris is not owed an audience. She is not entitled to one simply because she wants to be president. We should not give her the benefit of the doubt, because she refuses to even acknowledge her wrongdoings. We don’t have the right to forgive her; that right belongs to all the people she’s wronged over the course of her long career.
For that reason, I ask you not to vote for Kamala Harris in the primary, no matter how attractive a candidate she is or how well she explains away her inconsistent career. It’s possible that her past really won’t have much of an impact on how she’ll be as president, but why should we wait and see? The best-case scenario is that she’s a progressive who repeatedly violated her own principles so that she could promote her career. In the worst-case scenario, she’s just another corrupt, rotten, regressive prosecutor.